Switching Gears: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang

(From left) Lav Diaz, Boo Junfeng, Eric Khoo, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Riri Riza and Garin Nugroho.

(From left) Lav Diaz, Boo Junfeng, Eric Khoo, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Riri Riza and Garin Nugroho.

It’s been a long while, too long in fact, since there’s been a proper blog post in these parts. It’s time to put things right again.

The reason I’ve not been writing here for some time is that I’ve been very busy writing elsewhere. Namely, researching and writing for Astro’s A List, where the third season of South East Asia Directors Focus will start soon.

(For my overseas readers, Astro is Malaysia’s satellite TV broadcaster, and A List is the channel that screens alternative cinema and film festival fare. The SEA Directors Focus is a talk show where acclaimed directors from the region talk about their craft.)

The new season will feature six directors: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang of Thailand, Lav Diaz of the Philippines, Boo Junfeng and Eric Khoo of Singapore, and Riri Riza and Garin Nugroho of Indonesia.

Their films will also be screened on A List. Among the six directors, Pen-Ek will have the most number of films shown – in fact, almost his entire oeuvre. As such, I will write about those films.

Also, it’s because Pen-Ek is a very interesting character – humorous, cheeky and fun to chat with. I caught up with him a little more than a week ago, as we were shooting the season’s episodes. There was also a press conference to announce the new season, and during the question-and-answer session, he was asked what advice he would give young aspiring filmmakers.

“I don’t have any advice to give,” he replied, “because when I started out, nobody gave me any advice.” Which left everyone in stitches.

Pen-Ek was among the Thai New Wave of filmmakers who looked for a way to both entertain and have artistic credibility. Incredibly, this all happened during the 1997 financial crisis. Pen-Ek, along with Nonzee Nimibutr and Wisit Sasanatieng, led the way for commercial and critical success in the then-long stagnant Thai cinema, bringing a fresh, new breath and international recognition.

Here are the six films of his that will be shown on A List:

Fun Bar Karaoke (1997)

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Pen-Ek’s feature debut scored a world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. The style is almost clearly influenced by 80s Hong Kong cinema, most notably in an early action sequence that features some Wong Kar-wai-type kinetic editing. It’s a crime-comedy-fantasy-whatever, hard to pin down. But basically it’s about a young talent scout for TV commercials whose lousy dad gets into trouble with a mob boss. But one of the boss’s hitmen falls in love with her. Pen-Ek obviously draws from his experience in the advertising world, having been an award-winning commercials director himself. This film has a dreamy quality to it, but is somewhat uneven its storytelling wiles.

6ixtynin9 (aka A Funny Story About 6 and 9 aka Ruang Talok 69, 1999)

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This is, to me, his most entertaining film. When we met, I told him that this was my favourite of all his films, and he said it was also the one he likes most. Till now, I can’t tell whether he was serious or just humoring me. Quirky, almost nonsensical, 6ixtynin9 is a dark comedy of errors that begins when an office worker, who has just been laid off, finds a box full of cash on her doorstep. From thereon, the film doesn’t let up in its relentless servings of gags and hilarious situations involving incompetent gangsters, a handsome cop, a horny neighbour and a string of dead bodies. Some have complained about the ending being somewhat of a cop-out, but the film is so madcap, you will tend to forgive its shortcomings.

Monrak Transistor (aka Transistor Love Story, 2001)

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This, and Last Life in the Universe, are Pen-Ek’s most well-known films. A fable about a couple forced apart by circumstances beyond their control, this plays like a fairy tale set against a colourful backdrop that slowly becomes darker and more sinister, as the protagonist, Pan, a naive country boy yearning for fame as a singer, loses his innocence in an unforgiving world. Monrak Transistor is at once a Greek odyssey, a fantasy, a nostalgic trip, and a cynical look at the good, old days. It’s also a look at how good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people, and often there is no reason why. In one scene, Pen-Ek’s compatriot, Wisit Sasanatieng’s tom yam western parody, Tears of the Black Tiger, makes an appearance.

Ploy (2007)

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This was the third feature after Pen-Ek switched gears in terms of style, with the highly-acclaimed Pan-Asian Last Life in the Universe. From a fast-paced, humorous style, he began to turn 180 degrees into a territory marked by languid pacing and dreamy atmosphere. And he’s none the worse for it. Ploy is a remarkable film for several reasons. One is that the young actress who plays the titular character, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, was a non-actor, but who has since become a big star in Thailand. Another is that the first-time actor who plays Wit, the jaded husband who befriends Ploy, is actually the vice-president of the distributor of Coca-Cola in Thailand. The story follows couple Wit and Dang (Lalita Panyopas, of 6ixtynin9) who return to Thailand from America to attend a funeral. The story then becomes an exploration of three stages of life and relationships, following Wit meeting Ploy in the hotel bar, taking a turn into a fantastical, sexual role-playing between a housekeeping staff and a handsome bartender.

Nymph (2009)

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This film that reportedly had a troubled production competed in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes. Based on the folklore about the Nang Mai tree deity, this horror film follows a photographer in a troubled marriage, who tries to mend things by spending a night in the forest with his wife who’s been having an affair with her boss. But the photographer disappears in the middle of the night, and mysteriously reappears a few days later in their home. This has a very effective, quiet creepiness with great use of sound design. And to think, long before Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Pen-ek was already doing an atmospheric forest horror complete with a naked female spirit (actress-model Porntip Papanai who also appears in Monrak Transistor and Ploy) roaming the darkened, haunted tree world. Watch for the opening scene with seemingly impossible camera movement, which underlines the story’s premise of nature bearing silent witness to the follies of human existence.

Headshot (2011)

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Pen-Ek once jokingly described this as a piece of “Buddhist noir.” It’s a crime thriller about a cop disillusioned by his job, who is recruited by a secret vigilante organisation. During a botched hit job, he gets shot in the head, ends up in a coma for months, only to wake up with upside-down vision. It’s weird, slightly offbeat, but it’s also the weakest of the six films. There is all the fatalism required of noir, but the film stumbles along the way, sometimes seemingly unsure of how to negotiate its own path. But the opening action sequence is incredibly well-conceived and well-filmed.

The third season of SEA Directors Focus will start in October on A List Ch 456.

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